The extension of the Borders Rail link and a fresh drive to attract workers and families to the south of Scotland are among the measures called for to breathe new life into the area, according to a new study.
The region is facing a “watershed moment” with the need for an overhaul of town centres and more tourism among the key measures called for in today’s report for the Scottish Government.
There have been concerns that the region has been left behind in recent decades as the oil industry and tourism benefits have been seen in other parts of Scotland, with the Highlands and Islands Enterprise agency spearheading growth in those areas.
But the report says the region is a “unique place” capable of delivering significant jobs growth. The Scottish Government is now in the process of establishing the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, with legislation passed in parliament last month to address the perceived imbalance.
The report, titled Business-led Inclusive Job Growth in the South of Scotland, says: “The core message from local experts was that the south of Scotland has entered a ‘watershed’ in its economic development, a crucial turning point and an opportunity for change which it must grasp if the region is to make the transition to sustainable and inclusive growth.”
A total of 68 local small and medium-sized businesses were interviewed as part of the research, as well as local experts and Scottish financial providers. Transport barriers were a key issue identified among firms, with many calling for the recently revived Borders rail link to be extended from its current terminus at Tweedbank to Carlisle.
The report calls for an “integrated, multi-modal” transport strategy for the area, which includes extending the Borders Railway, an improved bus network and more electric car charge points.
A talent retention and attraction strategy aimed at young people and young families is also called for.
Professor Russel Griggs, chairman of the South of Scotland Economic Partnership, said better transport links are needed to sustain the population and attract more tourists.
Prof Griggs said: “We have an opportunity, through the establishment of the new agency, to capitalise on the ambitions of our local people, communities and businesses, create quality and well- paid jobs, and to deliver real and tangible improvements in inclusive growth outcomes for the economy of the south of Scotland.”
A new Regional Investment Advisory Board is also being sought to increase investment. Chris Tait, project manager of the Ethical Finance Hub, said: “In the south of Scotland, there is a need to better link existing demand for finance with supply, as well as develop financing products that better meet the needs of smaller businesses.”
Mark Hepworth, director of research and policy with The Good Economy, said: “The challenge facing the new enterprise agency is how to widen the circle of business-led inclusive job growth.
“The first priority is an integrated, multi-modal sustainable regional transport system. The second is an integrated strategy for attracting and retaining talent.”
Andrew McRae, Scotland policy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, welcomed the findings.
He said: “Smaller businesses in the south of Scotland will recognise the issues that the Scottish Government’s considered report identifies, including poor transport links and problems accessing talent.
“The study also astutely identifies that the best way to grow this area’s economy is to focus on giving local operators the right help.”